My hair smelled like fryer oil and powdered sugar. I got whiffs of it periodically. I’d be sitting on the couch watching tv and suddenly I’d smell donuts. Even after a long shower, I would come out smelling like my workday. I started to worry that donuts were becoming my new personal odor. Maybe it would get to a point where I wouldn’t be aware of it anymore but everyone else would associate it with me. I went to elementary school with a girl who smelled like cabbage and garlic. The first time I visited her house I was greeted with the same odor as soon as I stepped into her front doorway. Her family ate a lot of cabbage and garlic. I, however, rarely ate donuts, they smell disgusting.
I’d been working at Tim Horton’s Donuts for about five months. It was the only job I could find in my hometown when I got back from two years of travelling and working in Northern Europe. I didn’t want to come back to Canada but I didn’t know what else to do. My work visa had expired for the UK and I didn’t have any money to continue travelling without working.
“When are you coming home?” my mom would ask almost every time I called.
“Don’t you think it’s time to go back to school?” added my dad.
My parents were thrilled when I finally returned to Canada and ecstatic when I moved back in with them. They saw this as a right step in the direction of getting serious about my future. I saw it as a depressing leap backwards towards a life of conformity that I knew would only bring me misery. I survived a winter in Northern Ontario, living with my parents, by dreaming of elsewhere. I wasn’t done travelling and I definitely wasn’t ready to settle down. Tim Horton’s was a means to an end. Six months of slinging donuts and frugal living would be enough to pay for a return flight to my next destination.
When I was living in the UK I was regularly meeting young backpackers. Most of them were from South Africa, Australia or New Zealand since it was easier for students from Commonwealth countries to obtain work visas for the UK. There was a circuit that many young travelers followed that helped sustain their lifestyle. It included places where it was either easy to get a work visa or possible to find cash in hand, off the books, jobs. Often the circuit involved following the picking seasons for different agricultural products in Europe. April Asparagus picking in Germany, June daffodils and strawberries in Cornwall, July tomatoes in Italy, September apples in Spain, and October grapes in France. Another popular place was Israel because of the Kibbutz program. Kibbutzim are farm based economies populated by left leaning Israelis who desire an alternative lifestyle that consists of communal living in a setting that closely aligns with the socialist values of shared wealth. There were over 270 Kibbutzim in Israel in the 1990’s, most of which accepted volunteers from other countries to do menial labour on their farms and factories in exchange for room and board. Many of the backpacking friends I made in the UK had spent time on a Kibbutz and loved it.
“You just need to work about 40 hours a week and you get Saturdays off.” Hannah, my South African friend said.
“The Kibbutz I was on had almost fifty volunteers from all over the world.”
Hannah had met her boyfriend Craig on their Kibbutz near the Golan Heights. He returned to New Zealand after they left Israel, and she went to England to make enough money to join him once her UK work VISA expired. I met Hannah at Watson’s Bakery in East Surrey where we worked as waitresses and shared a room in a disgusting flat across the street. She had left South Africa a few years before and even though she loved the country of her birth and her Afrikaans culture, she had no plans to return. We connected immediately over our love of the Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and our similar taste in music. She introduced me to Nick Cave for which, to this day, I am grateful. I respected and admired her rejection of Apartheid and the extreem systemic racism in South Africa, which was one of the main reasons she had decided to leave. I had met many South Africans, while living in the UK, and she was the only Afrikaans that was critical of the Apartheid regime. This was early in the post-Apartheid era and most young South Africans I met during this time were fleeing because they were mistrustful of the new Mandela government.
Hannah, and other travellers I met abroad, often came to mind when I was working the late shift at Tim Horton’s. As I stood in front of the machine used to insert fillings into powdered donuts, I remembered the fun times I had while travelling. Next to me stood tall metal shelves containing wire racks filled with freshly fried donuts. The oil dripped densely from the bottom of the racks forming little mountain peaks of congealed fat on the floor. It was a mindless rhythm of sliding the donuts off the racks into a bin of powdered sugar. Shaking the bin to ensure an even coat of sugar on each donut. After the sugar bin, the donuts were individually picked up and pierced with the plastic nozzle to dispense the right amount of sickly sweet filling–vanilla and chocolate custard, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry jam. The only break in the monotony was having to switch the containers between flavors. Sometimes, when I was feeling especially bitter, I wouldn’t switch between strawberry and raspberry and would fill the raspberry powdered donut trays with strawberry imposters. I was desperate to feel like I had control over something.
To my parents’ chagrin, I was eventually able to, once again, leave Canada for another adventure and delay going back to school. Israel did not disappoint in its offering of full living and learning. The fried donut body odor eventually faded but the memory of my determination through those dark winter months in a donut shop in Northern Ontario remained. This formative experience is part of the reason I did eventually come back to Canada for University. The thought of being forced to work in a donut shop again was enough to get me to commit to learning a skill that I could exchange for a living wage and allowed me a certain amount of choice and freedom.